Women’s feet play a crucial role in Anvita Dutt’s beguiling Bulbbul. From the opening shot of a young girl’s legs playfully dangling from a branch to the wider examination of the folklore surrounding the chudail, feet matter in Dutt’s symbol-laden Netflix original movie.
Like the heels of the female demon that are turned outwards and away from its owner, Dutt’s directorial debut inverts what we believe about witches. There are other welcome rewrites in her screenplay, which begins in 1881 in rural Bengal. Child marriage is still prevalent, and the wedding between Bulbbul, who is only a bit bigger than a doll, and the vastly older Indranil (Rahul Bose) is an occasion for celebration.
Twenty years later, Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri) is the archetypal overdressed and reclining mistress of the manor. Her languid ways are familiar from popular depictions of aristocratic women, but the twinkle in her eyes and her Mona Lisa smile suggest that she has a few tricks up her puffed sleeves.
Bulbbul’s brother-in-law Satya (Avinash Tiwary) is taken aback at her transformation. They shared a special bond as children, being of a similar age, but he can barely recognise this intriguing woman who vibes all too well with her handsome doctor Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) and swats away her sister-in-law Binodini’s catty remarks.
Every large house has even bigger secrets, says Binodini (Paoli Dam), and Bulbbul’s abode heaves with some ugly ones. Beyond its gates, a chudail is on the prowl, sucking the life force out of men. Satya heads out to investigate, in the tradition of the nineteenth-century gentleman who feels morally obliged to set the world right.
The movie sets its ambitious ideas in a world that is both real and imagined. There is a touch of the uncanny and otherworldly to the colour-coordinated tableau vivant, which is memorably designed by Meenal Agarwal and gorgeously lensed by Siddharth Diwan. The colour scheme is dominated by teal and amber tones, giving expression to repressed emotions and simmering desires.
This carefully ordered corner of fading aristocracy is quite literally on fire. As Satya and Sudip scamper about in search of the chudail, the screen bursts into vivid grungy-orange shades that foreshadow the stunning climax.
Dutt’s feminist retelling of witchcraft folklore is expertly steered by Tripti Dimri, who conveys a great deal with a single look or a mischievous smile. Dimri was paired with Avinash Tiwary in Laila Majnu (2018), a contemporary adaptation of the legendary Persian romance. That movie showcased Tiwary’s talents and privileged Majnu’s tragedy over Laila’s suffering. The shoe is on the other foot in Bulbbul: Dimri is the star here. The rest of the cast is equally solid, especially Parambrata Chattopadhyay, but Dimri takes centrestage as a woman who subverts her seemingly pre-ordained fate.
Some of the cliches of horror fiction are repeated here – the creepy singing, the needless exposition – while others are cleverly done away with. Dutt’s empathy for her female characters extends to Binodini, who pithily explains her position in one of the movie’s strongest scenes.
The extraordinarily crisp Bulbbul doesn’t have too much room for suspense, with some of its answers telegraphed early on and the others arriving in an unwelcome rush. There appears to be a layer or two missing in the screenplay, but whatever is on the screen for 94 minutes is smart, sensitive and haunting.